The new courthouse in Doylestown is approaching its one year anniversary, but many have yet to discover how its construction has impacted family law operations. In this blog post, we talk about the Bucks County Justice Center’s role in family law litigation.
Before the Bucks County Justice Center was completed, family law litigation occurred, with few exceptions, in the Domestic Relations Courthouse, across the street from the Main Courthouse. The Family Masters Office (handling alimony, custody and equitable distribution issues), the Support Office (handling alimony pendente lite, child support and spousal support issues), and the family law courtrooms (where all family law issues are litigated) were located on the first, second and third floors, respectively. Now, the Family Masters Office, the Support Office, and the family law courtrooms are located in the Bucks County Justice Center. The Family Masters Office and the Support Office are located on level B-1, one floor down from the main entrance, and the family law courtrooms are located on the third floor and the fifth floor (for protection from abuse and support matters only). Similarly, the Domestic Prothonotary moved from the first floor of the Domestic Relations Courthouse to the first floor of the Bucks County Justice Center.
All matters commence with the filing of a complaint or petition with the Domestic Prothonotary (where a filing fee may be required depending on the type of matter being initiated) or the Support Office (where a filing fee is not required), as applicable. While staff members are available to answer basic questions, they are unable to provide legal advice, so one must be prepared to submit a filing that complies with all procedural requirements, whether or not one utilizes the services of an attorney. A deficient filing will not be addressed, until all deficiencies have been corrected.
As before, custody, equitable distribution and support matters follow a two-step process. The first step for both custody and equitable distribution matters is a conference in the Family Masters Office in front of a Family Master, who is an attorney specializing in such matters. In Bucks County, there currently are 5 Family Masters. With regard to both types of matters, the goal is to settle the issues without the necessity of a costly and lengthy hearing in front of a judge, but the Family Masters cannot enter an order, unless the parties agree to the terms. The difference is that most equitable distribution matters actually settle at the Family Masters Office level, whereas many custody matters proceed to a custody evaluation, a custody hearing or a combination of both. The first step for alimony pendente lite, child support and spousal support matters is a conference in the Support Office, in front of a Support Officer, who is an individual trained to handle support matters only. Like the Family Master, the Support Officer tries to settle the issues without the necessity of a hearing in front of a judge, but he or she cannot enter a final order, without the parties’ consent. If a hearing is necessary, it typically is scheduled for anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks after the conference date.
Other matters do not have an initial conference stage and proceed straight to a hearing in front of a judge; those matters include discovery, protection from abuse, and special relief matters. The Family Masters Office reviews such petitions for any procedural deficiencies and then schedules them in front of a judge. On most hearing days, the judge will have more than one matter scheduled, so one must be prepared to wait for his or her turn to proceed, sometimes until an entirely different day, depending on what happens with the other scheduled hearings. For this reason, one cannot expect the litigation process to yield a quick and easy result; it is meant to be the last resort for those who cannot settle their issues in an amicable manner.
Ultimately, the Bucks County Justice Center is the main resource for family law litigants, but one must know how to use it properly, in order to benefit from all it has to offer and not have it operate to his or her detriment.